Here on DoWntime, we talk a lot about Big Finish. And about the writers working for them, and how a lot of them are doing some fascinating things with Doctor Who, that can easily go unnoticed. Among those, David K. Barnes, whose first Doctor Who story, last year’s “The Dalek Occupation of Winter, led me to write a whole article basically yelling over and over how good it was. Best Who story of 2018, no take-backs.
After “Breach of Trust”, a UNIT story that has been described by experts (also known as “me”) as “nearly as good” and “singlehandedly justifying the existence of Big Finish’s UNIT audios”, he’s back today with “Daughter of the Gods”, a multi-Doctors story starring both the First and Second incarnations. Also, Daleks and Katarina, in a pastiche of what a “five years anniversary” might have looked like in 1968. To celebrate this momentous occasion, I’ve had the chance to metaphorically sit down with him to talk about Who, politics and how audio drama works. It’s been good. And hopefully, will be good to read!
First – the ritual questions: could you quickly walk us through your career and how you ended up writing for Doctor Who? What’s been your experience with Doctor Who, really, generally speaking?
To take the last part first, I’ve been a Who fan since I was nine. It was my Mum who got me into it, really, saying it was something she used to watch with my uncle when they were children. UK Gold was repeating the Tom Baker episodes across weekday evenings, so I gave it a go and became hooked instantly. Even waiting 24 hours to see how the cliffhanger was resolved was agony to me, so I’ve no idea how kids managed to last a whole week in the old days!
Robot episode 2 was my first one and my earliest memory of watching Who is Tom Baker going to sleep on a lab table. I’d never seen adults behaving that way before, and watching this mad, silly but very clever Doctor became a transformative experience. I’d say nearly everything about my writing, my interests and my sense of humour can be traced back to watching those early Tom Baker serials as a child. I was already scribbling away, jotting stories down in notebooks, but it was Doctor Whothat really set things off.
I properly got into writing at the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, knocking out two or three plays a year, none of which would be worth staging again! But then I trained in writing and editing scripts, to try and make it my profession, and fell into audio by chance. I created with some friends the podcast sitcom Wooden Overcoats, and I think that opened a few doors. John Dorney at Big Finish has known me for years, and he recommended me to David Richardson – which then led to The Dalek Occupation of Winter.
You’ve obviously got theatre experience, but among the writers that Big Finish has hired, you do stand out as one of the people whose main, or at least best-known body of work, was in audio drama before they approached you. Do you think of yourself as primarily an audio drama writer? Is there a split between that kind of approach and theatre, or do you see your writing career as more of a unified whole?
Though I love the opportunities that audio affords for unfettered imagination and a focus on dialogue – as well as several production advantages, like the potential to work with actors who’d normally be too busy – it’s mainly financial reasons that have led to me working primarily within the medium. My ultimate dream has always been to write a successful West End comedy, something that seems evermore unlikely!
It’s become prohibitively expensive to write theatre in the UK unless you’ve got a lot of time and/or a lot of savings, and I don’t have either. You do still get some writers from low income backgrounds managing to break through, but writing for the stage just isn’t a sustainable career path. Podcasts have opened up avenues for people to create work with fewer risks attached: you likely won’t make any money, but you won’t lose any either. It gives you a finished product to show producers and execs, which could lead to paid commissions elsewhere.
Scripted podcasts are still a comparative rarity, especially in in the UK, but I think the medium will become an important arena for writers to practice their craft and gain immediate feedback from audiences, especially if their work gains traction. A single episode of Wooden Overcoats receives a greater audience in its first week than that of every performance of every play I’ve ever written combined.
All that being said… there’s very, very little money out there for creative work in any medium. It never looks that way from the articles you might read online but it’s never felt more difficult for writers to get their foot in the door.
Your best-known work obviously is Wooden Overcoats, which has this very precise focus on a small family, in a small village – do you think that kind of small-scale storyline, of centring on the details and textures of people’s lives, kind of influences the way you tell stories in a larger, wilder sci-fi setting?
When I wrote plays, I tended to begin with an image, something that amused me but suggested an untold story. On audio, I instead concentrate on an interesting character dynamic, something that can propel a story all by itself even before you add external pressures. I imagine a little of that person’s circumstances but I don’t like to write whacking great biographies of them before I’ve written any dialogue. I like to discover the character as I’m writing and then go back to revise things if I’ve hit upon something that I should introduce earlier.
What I do struggle with, however, is ‘big ideas’. I keep thinking that must make me entirely unsuitable for sci-fi! It’s so often about taking a theoretical idea and interrogating it from every angle and extrapolating whole worlds from it. That’s an incredible skill if you can master it but it’s too clinical an approach for me. If you gave me a choice between the premises “Doctor Who explores the multiverse” and “Doctor Who tries to read a book but people keep interrupting him” then I’d take the second one like a shot, and then extract something wider from it.
I think I hit upon something interesting in The Dalek Occupation of Winter, though the specifics of its economy gave me an absolute headache. Aside from the general idea of “a society that sustains itself quite happily from building Daleks” I began with small moments: Majorian eating peanuts whilst talking to an irate Dalek, Karna quietly bullying Amala while picking her brother up, Amala taking Steven to task for patronising her when she’s already agreed to help him. All relatively small moments of comedy or drama with an interesting dynamic at their heart, from which I could then build the story.
My upcoming Daughter of the Gods was entirely plotted around two quiet conversations. I suppose as a process it’s not too different from the ‘big ideas’ method really, it’s just I start with something very small instead.
Big Finish is kind of a unique company in how they distribute their audio content, relying mostly (with exceptions, like their Dark Shadows miniseries) on a boxset system, at a time where a lot of audio content takes the form of podcasts on freely accessible feeds. Do you feel like there’s a difference between those kinds of formats, or is your approach to writing similar in either case?
The difference lies mostly in how the listener consumes it, I think, though you try to anticipate that when you’re structuring your series. A line of biannual box sets requires each set to be satisfying on its own merits, whilst feeding into a wider arc, to justify the cost of purchase. A freely available podcast series has greater licence to do whatever it wants over whatever length of time it wants; market forces don’t exert the same kind of pull. But in return for greater freedom, you face smaller budgets and the possibility that nobody will listen to what you wrote!
But I think my own approach to writing remains similar whatever the case, yes. Doctor Who has certain rules you have to follow (or at the very least, not outright break), the same as any show does. Mind you, it uniquely has 55+ years of tradition to uphold, whilst always – in theory – attempting to subvert what came before at the same time. That’s pretty difficult to do. I think the box set formula is a successful attempt to embrace modern ways of consuming entertainment in a way that’s still practical from a production perspective.
No matter what the format or the structure, I need to find my way into the story, and that tends to be through the usual process of latching onto those interesting character dynamics, or a series of eccentricities.
On that same note – do you feel like there’s a future for Doctor Who in these kinds of podcast spaces? Would it fare well with that kind of structure?
In the sense that Doctor Who can go anywhere and do anything for as long as it wants, yes. But the podcast space and the world that Big Finish inhabits are already very closely linked. I’d argue there’s a stronger relationship between Big Finish and podcasts than Big Finish and traditional radio, in terms of what their format allows.
Moving on to the actual contents of the stories you’ve written: before I start asking very pointed questions, how would you define your approach to storytelling? Is there such thing as a David K. Barnes trademark?
One of my regular producers said once that the characters in my comedy scripts behave as if they were children in the playground, except now they’re adults and haven’t noticed. I think that’s still the best description of what I try to do in my writing, and I try to remind myself of it when I think a script is getting away from me. I enjoy the eccentric and the trivial, especially when it points towards something deeply serious below the surface.
I’d say some of this carries over into my Doctor Who work too. I adore writing comic-interplay with the TARDIS crew, especially when they get to be silly. One of my favourite scenes to write in Daughter of the Gods is the first Doctor and Steven bickering at the breakfast table, something I could happily have extended to an hour if I hadn’t had a plot to get on with. I was really pleased to see that listeners liked Gaius Majorian in Winter too, as more than anybody else he’s like a refugee from my comedy work. The moment when he starts shaving in front of a Dalek was great fun to write and I wondered if I’d be asked to remove it, for fear of undermining the Daleks. But comedy should always demonstrate motivation or feeling; I don’t like including jokes for the sake of it. I knew that if the audience found Majorian funny, they’d be even more horrified by events later in the story.
One of my favourite writers of the classic series is Donald Cotton, the master of the “lots of jokes leading up to a bloody massacre” structure. If you can laugh with a character, you’ll empathise with them far more than you might otherwise have done. Mind you, most people describe my Who stories so far as being very bleak, which they are – but I don’t think people would have enjoyed them without the comic dialogue and the jokes.
Both “The Dalek Occupation of Winter” and the UNIT episode “Breach of Trust” are intensely political stories, or at the very least open themselves up to very political reading. Was that something you were looking for, this kind of confrontation with big issues, or did it just arise during the writing process?
Breach of Trust was the simpler task, as the whole story is pretty focussed on a single ethical dilemma, and I knew I could develop that in stages to suit the running time. I’m fascinated by “good people having to make an awful choice” stories, and narratives in which the best of intentions lead to enormous problems.
The Dalek Occupation of Winter went through a lot of ideas before settling down on the story we recorded. My original idea was that a government was keeping its people subdued using security personnel wearing Dalek casings; essentially, faking an alien occupation. The government would enact quite brutal policies in the name of survival and blame them on the Daleks so as to avoid personal blame. Then, of course, the real Daleks turn up about halfway through and all Hell breaks loose. We abandoned this idea for various reasons but stuck with the idea of the Doctor arriving to find an ordinary society with Daleks on every street corner. That’s when I thought, “Well, how about the population make the Daleks? And they’re not enslaved – not in the traditional way – they’re doing it because it’s their job?” It’d be tricky for the Doctor to persuade the population to reject the Daleks when their whole livelihoods are at stake, and when – as far as they’re concerned – the Daleks aren’t a problem anyway.
I remember saying at one point that an advantage the audio drama format has is that it doesn’t have the weight of production that a TV story has – you don’t have to account for the filming, the SFX, etc. … – and that, as a result, it kind of allows you to react to the zeitgeist a lot quicker. “Breach of Trust”, for instance, felt very much inspired by the #MeToo movement, and it wasn’t the only Big Finish drama that year to do that, Joseph Lidster also got in that conversation with “Tagged”. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
Audio definitely has that advantage, yes. (Though a topical joke I wrote into a Fourth Doctor script will have entirely lost its relevance by the time the story is released!) At the recording of Breach of Trust, Ingrid Oliver and Jemma Redgrave said they liked this script for tackling feminist issues. I’d layered those in deliberately, particularly the early scenes alluding to systemic sexual harassment. The scene where Kate is yelled at by a drunk man in the street – this woman who protects the world being made to feel unsafe in public thanks to a single unthinking individual – was the first I wrote. My own girlfriend had been yelled at in the street not long before in similar circumstances, and I was damn sure any and every woman could say the same. Breach of Trust just happened to be the commission I was working on at the time, so I wanted to get a few things off my chest in that script.
Speaking of the TV show and politics, the last few seasons definitely have felt like they were doing some soul-searching about how best to tackle these kind of ideas: you had the Twelfth Doctor talking about praxis, and “Oxygen”, and of course the Thirteenth Doctor historicals in 2018. Do you think it’s just a reflection of the time, because, well, we’re all very concerned about politics right now, or the sign of a larger evolution in Who, and in our media at large?
These things tend to be intertwined. Social media has opened up discussions of issues and politics to an unprecedented extent. It’s easier than ever to reach out and find people in similar circumstances to yourself, so nobody need feel quite so alone ever again, which is a wonderful, life-affirming thing. Unfortunately, this holds as true for those with, shall we say, distinctly more unpleasant beliefs too. And we still don’t know how to deal with that.
The other issue is that complex issues are too often boiled down to absolute statements… but it’s never been clearer how complex these issues are. Things aren’t binary anymore. They never have been, but society at large is realising how much that’s the case. When I was at school twenty years ago, for instance, gender identity and sexual identity simply wasn’t something we ever discussed; things are changing now at a rapid rate. There’s a much greater appetite for exploring these complexities – podcasts are doing an excellent job, through audio dramas, discussion shows and documentaries – but whether traditional media is up for grappling with them is another matter.
Because, with our trust in politicians and news sources at an all-time low, the world is too often a dispiriting place, and we don’t know what to do about it. I remember thinking that, after the ethical certainties that Doctor Who espoused during the RTD and Moffat years, Season 11 on TV seemed to be taking things much more cautiously. I’m sure we all wanted to see Trump-lite receive a proper comeuppance in Arachnids in the UK, and perhaps it’s far more adult to say: sorry kids, sometimes the unpleasant people get off scot free. But to me it didn’t satisfy a yearning need in the audience – during a horrible, turbulent year – to see these bastards get what’s coming to them.
Mind you, I remember getting irritated by the Doctor in other years swanning into situations and assuming total moral authority despite seemingly not giving a damn about the personal circumstances of the ordinary people left behind in his wake. That’s where The Dalek Occupation of Winter partly came from, particularly the scene where Steven trots out the usual accusations and Amala rebuffs him by saying “I am going to help you, but these people still need to be able to feed themselves when it’s all over.” Too often, revolution in Doctor Who is something of a privileged pursuit, led by a person who can just disappear when it’s all over. I adore Doctor Who, absolutely love it, but in the 21st Century I think the Doctor needs to take greater responsibility for their actions.
Equally, I remember getting irritated by the Doctor in other years swanning into situations and assuming total moral authority despite seemingly not giving a damn about the personal circumstances of the ordinary people left behind in his wake. That’s where The Dalek Occupation of Winter partly came from, particularly the scene where Steven trots out the usual accusations and Amala rebuffs him by saying “I am going to help you, but these people still need to be able to feed themselves when it’s all over.” Too often, revolution in Doctor Who is something of a privileged pursuit, led by a person who can just disappear when it’s all over. I adore Doctor Who, absolutely love it, but in the 21st Century I think the Doctor needs to take greater responsibility for their actions.
Both “Breach of Trust” and the upcoming “Daughter of the Gods” focus on female characters – was that a deliberate choice? Katarina, in particular, has become something of a talking point regarding the Classic Series’ poor treatment of some female characters, something that John Dorney commented on himself, earlier this year, in his story “Companion Piece”, which acts as a teaser for yours, featuring Ajjaz Awad in a cameo. Was that something you were conscious of when you started writing?
Very deliberate choice. Daughter of the Gods took me ages to work out because, whilst I knew that a selling point was its status as a multi-Doctor story, I didn’t want Katarina to simply be another companion in the mix. I wanted the story to be about her in some way. Fandom has imbued this character with a status that perhaps not even the Doctor would recognise: after all, he barely knew her. The fact that her status as “the one who died” entirely overshadows her actual personality became the tension I wanted to play with. I hoped to clear aside everything that is said about the character and focus on the woman herself. Can Katarina take control of her own narrative, when so many other things are happening around her?
One of my other upcoming stories – a Tom Baker historical (which probably won’t be out for a few years!) – deals with similar themes from a different standpoint. I can’t say more about it until its announced but it covers one of my favourite periods of history and one of its most interesting female figures, working with the essential question: whose narrative is this anyway?
Both your Who stories were praised for being both extremely slick, well-paced productions while still packing a considerable amount of theme, character and commentary. Do you find that a challenge? Basically, really – how does your writing process work? Do you figure out the beats of the story and graft your message on top of those, or is it the other way around, a story that organically arises from the message you’re trying to convey?
Thank you! You’re very kind. Most of the time I’m simply looking for ways to use the cast. The Doctor, Steven and Vicki – for instance – all need something to do, so let’s get them to explore three distinct areas of society: the leaders, the workers, and the poor souls stuck in the Dalek labs. That informs the characters you’ll need them to meet (and you’ve got a budget to work within, limiting the speaking roles), so once the structure is in place you can begin to develop the themes further and see what leaps out at you. I always like to have a particular overriding theme or tension in place to fuel the drama, even if I don’t know exactly where it’ll go. I think a good story and a good theme happen at the same time, all being well. If you’re trying to hammer one into the other, something’s probably gone wrong.
We’re nearing the end, so, just a few more questions – of all your Who-related projects, which one was your favourite to write?
The Dalek Occupation of Winter will always hold a special place in my heart for being the first one I wrote, as well as being so warmly received by the listeners! Otherwise, it’s probably the Fourth Doctor historical I mentioned above, and it’s going to be years until anyone can hear it!
If you had a way to magically make it happen – what’s the one Who story you’d most want to tell?
I’m too scared to say, in case somebody nicks it. But I suppose a regeneration story would be especially tempting. You need to achieve that balance of heroic success and tragic failure, not to mention: how does the Doctor approach death? Resignation? Willingly? Refusal? I’d love a story where the Doctor regenerates partway through the story, just as things are really getting out of control, and their new incarnation has to solve it whilst barely being able to keep themselves together. You could never do that on TV – there’s no way you’d allow your star to leave the series halfway through an episode – but it’d be an interesting experiment for another medium, perhaps.
Finally – “Daughter of the Gods” has just come out, what’s next for you?
I’ve also written another play for Historic Royal Palaces’ Outliers podcast coming out at the end of the month, telling a story set during the reign of George I: Mehmet and the Wild Boy.
Otherwise, my sitcom Wooden Overcoats is currently fundraising for its fourth and final season and we recently hit our targets, so that’s definitely being made and released in 2020. The show’s about rival funeral directors on a channel island, exploring jealousy and envy within a particularly morbid workplace. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve made over the last few years and if any of your readers would like to listen to it – find it on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts – I’d be very happy. There’s even a few actors that regular Big Finish listeners will recognise, including Andy Secombe, Hugh Fraser and Katy Manning!
Thank you so much for your time, and looking forwards to hearing more stories from you!
- You can buy David’s audio work here: